Four Downs: NFC West
by Danny Tuccitto
Biggest hole: Quarterback
No matter how you slice it, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer were just plain awful. According to standard NFL statistics, Arizona's pass offense ranked 28th in yardage, 29th in completion percentage, 31st in touchdowns, 32nd in interceptions, and 32nd in sacks allowed. In passing DVOA, they ranked 31st (Kolb), 37th (Skelton), and 39th (Lindley) out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 passes.
Kolb, Skelton, and Lindley comprised the first trio of signal-calling teammates since 2004 -- and only the sixth since 1991 -- to each finish in the bottom 11 according to Football Outsiders' DYAR measure of total player value (explained here).
It's quite illustrious company for the 2012 Cardinals to have joined: Not one, but two Billy Joes; a Bucky; a Collins not named Kerry or Phil; arguably the biggest draft bust in NFL history; a Super Bowl-winning punter; and a strong-armed prospect for the Cardinals of professional baseball.
|Team||Year||QBs (DYAR Ranks)|
|Phoenix Cardinals||1991||Stan Gelbaugh (29th), Chris Chandler (34th), Tom Tupa (38th)|
|Houston Oilers||1994||Bucky Richardson (41st), Billy Joe Tolliver (43rd), Cody Carlson (44th)|
|Buffalo Bills||1997||Billy Joe Hobert (38th), Alex Van Pelt (42nd), Todd Collins (45th)|
|Dallas Cowboys||2001||Quincy Carter (29th), Anthony Wright (34th), Ryan Leaf (37th)|
|Chicago Bears||2004||Jonathan Quinn (37th), Chad Hutchinson (38th), Craig Krenzel (42nd)|
|Arizona Cardinals||2012||Kevin Kolb (29th), John Skelton (35th), Ryan Lindley (38th)|
As "Tom Tupa was our opening-day starter in 1991" suggests, this franchise has been trying to plug a hole at quarterback for over two decades. And after 2012, none of the players currently in the fold are that plug. If you're inclined to give Kolb a "get out of jail free" card because he was injured, we remind you that he finished 2011 ranked 28th out of 34 quarterbacks in total QBR. Similarly, if you're inclined to do the same for Skelton because he was "a winner" in 2011, we remind you that he had 35.1 Total QBR that season, basically the same as Kolb's 34.4.
So that's the disease; what can they do to treat it this offseason? The answer seems to be "not much." The group of free-agent quarterbacks is almost as underwhelming as the names in the table above. Alex Smith and Matt Flynn can be had for the right price, but Arizona will have to pay a hefty premium considering that Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll would rather have Sunday morning breakfast together than improve the roster of a division rival.
There's not much promise in the draft either, where the scouting consensus says this is a below-average quarterback class and Mel Kiper, Jr., doesn't even have one being selected in the first round of his latest mock draft. The only quarterback projected to go in the first round is West Virginia's Geno Smith, but neither Kiper, Jr. nor Todd McShay think he's a good fit for new head coach Bruce Arians' offense, while other sites have him coming off the board before Arizona is on the clock.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest hole: Defensive Depth
I wrote the following in our Plugging the Holes series from last May: "The only real limitation of San Francisco's roster at the moment is a stunning lack of experience on its defensive bench, mostly at defensive line and in the secondary. I say 'stunning' because ... the 49ers' defense was the second-healthiest in the league [in 2011]." In 2012, that same combination of lack of depth with excellent health clearly showed up in participation rates, as nine players were on the field for 90 percent or more of San Francisco's defensive snaps, and a 10th, Justin Smith, would have been as well if not for missing the final two games of the regular season. For all intents and purposes, this has been a 12-man unit on game day during the Jim Harbaugh era.
It's no surprise, then, that the 49ers defense took a statistical nose dive in the second half of the season, especially after Justin Smith (and Aldon Smith) got hurt. (It got less press, but Aldon Smith was dealing with a shoulder injury in practices during the playoffs.) Given that San Francisco had the 10th-oldest defense in the NFL according to our new snap-weighted age metric (27.3 years old), it's fair to say that this unit was tired and beaten down. The only defenders outside of their 12-man rotation that you've even (maybe) heard of are dime cornerback Perrish Cox, backup inside linebacker Larry Grant, and Justin Smith's injury replacement Ricky Jean-Francois.
So what should they do about it? First things first, they need to either re-sign free safety Dashon Goldson or use the franchise tag on him for the second straight year. They also need to re-sign either nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga or Jean-Francois, who has filled in for Sopoaga in the past. Then, they need to find a way to get 2011 sixth-round safety Trent Robinson on the field more often -- as in more than the zero defensive snaps he played in 2012. Otherwise, as San Francisco is set on offense and has assimilated Pittsburgh's penchant for penny pinching in free agency under general manager Trent Baalke, the team needs to spend the entirety of draft weekend selecting defenders. It's a good thing that they have 14 picks, and that this is a deep draft on the defensive side of the ball.
Biggest hole: Defensive Line
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Seattle's defense was essentially the opposite of San Francisco's: the second-youngest according to snap-weighted age, with 16 players seeing the field for 20 percent or more of the team's defensive snaps. Therefore, depth isn't as much of a concern for the Seahawks. Like San Francisco, however, an already-elite defense (fourth in defensive DVOA) on an already-elite team (our No. 1 overall during the regular season) needs some tweaking along the front four.
The elephant in the room is the torn ACL that defensive end Chris Clemons suffered in Seattle's Wild Card round victory over Washington. Unless his offseason rehab includes a laying on of hands from Adrian Peterson, it's not likely that the 32-year old Clemons will be as productive in 2013 as he has been since joining the Seahawks in 2010 (33.5 sacks and 75 quarterback hurries). Luckily, 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin, who registered eight sacks (most among rookies) and 18 hurries despite playing only 43 percent of snaps last season, is poised to pick up Clemons' pass-rushing slack.
However, more playing time for Irvin vis-à-vis Clemons will likely hurt Seattle's run defense, which was already a weaker link (12th in DVOA) than their pass defense (third). Whereas Clemons had a 71 percent stop rate (explained here) on running plays in 2012, which was behind only Brandon Mebane (80 percent) along Seattle's defensive line, only two of Irvin's seven run tackles resulted in stops. Yes that's a tiny sample size, but it's worth mentioning that Irvin's reputation as a one-dimensional player wasn't helped at all by the 162-yard, Divisional Round eruption from Atlanta's run offense, which had ranked 29th in DVOA going into the game.
Complicating matters even further for the Seahawks' run defense is that starting tackle Alan Branch is an unrestricted free agent, backup Clinton McDonald is a restricted free agent, and early-down end Red Bryant's late-season foot issue was recently revealed to be a torn plantar fascia. 2012 fourth-rounder Jaye Howard only played 22 defensive snaps all season.
Although they had the youngest secondary (24.9 years old) and second-youngest linebackers (24.7) according to snap-weighted age, the Seahawks front four was 14th-oldest (27.0), with their starters ranging from 27 to 31 years of age last year. Given the injuries, potential free agent losses, and a draft that's deepest at defensive tackle, it might be the perfect time for Seattle to get better and younger up front. Most mocks have them taking a defensive tackle with the 25th pick; nearly all predict a defensive lineman of some sort. But why stop there?
St. Louis Rams
Biggest holes: Right Tackle, Safety
Only one year removed from 2-14, it's remarkable that the Rams roster doesn't have more holes. On the surface, it appears that free agency may decimate their offense due to the potential loss of Steven Jackson, but 2012 seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson would have ranked 16th in running back DVOA if he had the two additional carries needed to qualify. Talented second-rounder Isaiah Pead played only 39 offensive snaps last season and should contribute much more in 2013. At wide receiver, rookie Chris Givens finished a respectable 47th in DYAR, while free agent Brandon Gibson -- as good as gone -- has had his role as the team's big, possession receiver in jeopardy since the moment St. Louis drafted 6-foot-4 Brian Quick last April. And if the team doesn't re-sign injury-prone slot receiver Danny Amendola, the draft features three consensus first-round wide receievers, and the free-agent market offers several additional options, including fellow Wes-Welker clone Julian Edelman.
Instead, the biggest offensive issue St. Louis needs to address is at right tackle, where Barry Richardson had another awful year in pass protection (18 blown-block sacks or hurries allowed), and backup Wayne Hunter struggled mightily as an injury replacement for left tackle Rodger Saffold (eight blown-block sacks or hurries allowed in one-third season's worth of snaps). It should also be noted that, in the running game, St. Louis' least productive run direction was behind right tackle. As of right now, premier right tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Andre Smith are available if the Rams want to throw money at the problem. Otherwise, it's likely that Oklahoma's Lane Johnson will be available at their No. 16 pick.
On defense, St. Louis went from the 32nd-ranked DVOA in 2010 to 21st in 2011 to seventh 2012. With Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan set to hit the market as unrestricted free agents, strongside linebacker might be a concern. Of course, it's not like either of those guys is Von Miller. No, the biggest impending hole on defense is at safety, where it's likely that both 2012 starters (Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl) won't be re-signed, and backup Darian Stewart went from "strong safety of the future" to "Gatorade watchman" in the course of one calendar year. Again, the Rams could benefit from a deep pool of second-tier free agents (e.g., Yeremiah Bell and Louis Delmas), while their No. 22 pick lines up nicely with where the two consensus first-round safeties, Texas' Kenny Vaccaro and Florida's Matt Elam, are projected to go off the board.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)